In Conversation with Oikyotaan
Sarawak – “The Land of the Hornbills”. Situated on the mythical island of Borneo, it is a land cloaked in pristine natural beauty, alive with the music of the forest, the birds, the people.
It is this land that will play host to the Borneo World Music Expo (June 24th – 26th), and the Rainforest World Music Festival (June 28th – 30th). The expo will be coloured with musical showcases, conferences, networking sessions and exhibitions, with the ultimate purpose of showcasing traditional, folk, and ethnic music, while simultaneously exposing these musicians to the international market. The Rainforest World Music Festival will also feature afternoon workshops, jam sessions, and ethno-musical lectures – but the evenings will come to life with artists from around the world and indigenous musicians from Borneo, taking to the stage and sharing their stories.
Representing India at the Borneo World Music Expo on June 24th is Oikyotaan – an act featuring Bonnie Chakraborty and Kartik Das Baul, who blend the philosophy and music of the Bauls, with Indian classical and folk influences – all presented with a contemporary flavour. We chatted with Bonnie of Oikyotaan about his outer journey as a musician, his inner spiritual journey, and his journey across the ocean to the Borneo World Music Expo.
IndiEarth: Tell me about the philosophy behind your music, and what you’re trying to communicate with Oikyotaan?
Bonnie: Well the term Oikyotaan means ‘the coming together of a thousand melodies into one song’. Basically, I’ve been in the industry for 23 years now, and after doing rock n’ roll for 9 years, I took a 360 degree turn and wanted to get to the music from my hometown, Bangladesh – I wanted to take a journey backwards and inculcate the discipline that is Baul. See, according to the Bauls, both the worshipper and shrine reside inside the body, and one has to invoke the God from within. The Bauls delve into the philosophy that one has to dive deep within, to soar beyond. It believes the ultimate union with Radha and Krishna can only be achieved when you have a partner, a Baulini, a lady. As the saying goes, “Love is the fuel which runs the engine of this world”. It’s not religion, not caste/creed/colour. It’s a faith that is over 1000 years old, and I’ve been researching it now for about 12 years. Without displacing the ultimate elements and philosophy of Baul music, I wanted to infuse contemporary elements from India – Carnatic rhythms, Hindustani classical music, folk music from all around India, music like Chaita Nergun – (a folk form from Bihar), and Jhumur (a folk form from Bengal). Essentially, we want to present Indian contemporary folk music in a way that’s not been heard before.
IndiEarth: How did you get involved with the Borneo World Music Expo?
Bonnie: Gerald Seligman is a friend of ours, who we met way back in 2007. He remembered our line up, and he said he wanted us to be part of the inaugural World Music Expo.
IndiEarth: As an artist, what are your expectations for the expo, and for the Rainforest World Music Festival?
Bonnie: Well it’s a great place to network and meet a lot of programmers – 22 different programmers coming from around the globe, there’s a lot on the platter – I’m anticipating something dynamic. The Rainforest World Music Festival was a huge affair – I would call it more of a stage where lots of workshops are being held, where one exercises how to network. The most interesting part is there is a nice showcase, where we are performing on the 24th – I am excited because I am the only artist from India, so there’s a huge responsibility. I’m looking forward to meeting all these programmers, and at the helm of Gerald Seligman, I am expecting something quite magical.
IndiEarth: As a sort of cultural ambassador for India at the festival – what do you hope to communicate to international audiences with your performance?
Bonnie: Our music is earthy, rooted, and quintessentially Indian – this is what I want to present to the crowd, and speak about the philosophy. See what we do – it’s not just about Baul music, it must also be accessible by the masses. In a world where people are highly opinionated, here was a faith 1000 years ago which propagated the need to worship ourselves, the God that resides within. The Bauls also had suspicions of manmade boundaries – they used to laugh at manmade religions. The whole idea is that the soul is inside this cage, and one day the soul is going to fly away. The soul remains, but the cage is transitory. In today’s world where people are torn apart by so many different faiths, the Baul upholds the religion of mankind. They hated manmade social boundaries, and upheld women – from a thousand years ago, women were regarded as the truly exalted beings. If you want to know the real power of the universe, you must become one with the power of the woman – and to do this, you must inculcate her traits. I’m not promoting only music – I’m promoting a way of life. That philosophy is what I’m trying to promote, and speak about. I also want to showcase my documentary film – “The New Generation Baul”.
IndiEarth: What can we expect from your showcase performance?
Bonnie: I am doing songs from Lalon Fakir – one of the biggest exponents of Baul music and its philosophy, who has written over 5000 songs. Rabindranath Tagore was actually influenced by him. We are doing a repertoire of Baul music known as Dehattawta – which means a gift of the divine. The Bauls believe the body is the biggest machinery, it has light within, it can give birth, it is in fact a gift of the divine. The Bauls also speak in coded lyrical artistry. They intentionally didn’t want people from the orthodox world to understand what they were saying. They speak about the body, chakras, how one has to treat the thin line between good and bad, how we have to choose the marketplace of happiness, how we have to free the unknown bird from this cage. It’s being presented with a variety of instruments – the dotara – a folk instrument from Bengal; a Persian instrument called the robab; the oudh – an Arabic instrument, with Andalusian leanings; a Bengali percussion instrument called the bangla dhol; a Carnatic percussion instrument called the ganjeera; the khomok, also known as the gub gubi ––a thousand year old percussion and melody instrument from Bengal that is supposed to throw you in a state of trance; and we’re also using a bass. Our music however is devoid of any western harmonic structure.
IndiEarth: Was your sound readily accepted in India? How has your music been received in India versus performing internationally at expos such as the Borneo World Music Expo?
Bonnie: I have not sold out to any record label, we’ve been doing this just by ourselves – because nobody in India understood our music, nobody in India believed in our sound. It’s a very barenaked sound – I’ve found a huge audience in Europe, and have been choosing festivals intelligently, because I don’t want to be seen in the wrong context. I’ve been performing internationally from 2003, and generally in Europe there’s a lot of care taken, a lot of research, care taken for intellectual property. India is a country with a host of esoteric and spiritual material – so the West tends to take healthily from Indian spiritual material. Until 2010, it was a pleasure performing outside of India, since India had not taken notice of this alternative music outside Bollywood. Although I sing for Bollywood, it was a monopoly – a huge business, and no parallel music was able to develop. But since 2010, I’ve seen a change develop. The Indian audience is waking up to alternative music, niche music, and even Bollywood is taking from indie music. But I feel a lot more has to be done to promote independent world music in this country. It’s a great feeling to perform in Malaysia – but things have changed in India, and within a year or two we can expect a revolution, in terms of the globalization of Indian music – which is already happening very quickly.